“My first memory of Texas is being glued to my mother’s hip as we thrashed through the terrain looking for a place to call home. We never had a place, a house of our own. When I say ‘thrashed through the terrain,’ I mean branches slashing against a child’s body that is glued to his mother’s body as they walk through the mud in bare feet, going from one place to another. I’m talking about Texas mornings when the dew was lost in a hug of nothingness. Where one wants to be someplace and he’s not there and there is no father. I’m talking about living with aunts, cousins, and grandparents and not truly belonging anywhere. My deepest memories are of a place called Rogers, Texas, where my mother and I rented a house with no furniture. In Rogers there was a church where the gospel was preached. It was the center of my community. The church was always very important, very theatrical, and very intense. The life that went on there and the music made a great impression on me. At a church in Cameron, when I was about nine, I watched a procession of people, all in white, going down to a lake. The minister was baptizing everybody as the choir sang ‘Wade in the Water.’ After baptism we went into church where the minister’s wife was singing a soulful version of ‘I’ve Been ‘Buked, I’ve Been Scorned.’ The ladies had fans that they fluttered while talking and singing. All of this is in my ballet “Revelations”.”
Excerpts from “Revelations: The Autobiography of Alvin Ailey”
“’Revelations’ began with the music. As early as I can remember I was enthralled by the music played and sung in the small black churches in every small Texas town my mother and I lived in. No matter where we were during those nomadic years Sunday was always a churchgoing day. There we would absorb some of the most glorious singing to be heard anywhere in the world.” – Alvin Ailey
And a glorious ballet it is, filled with songs of trouble and of love. I still remember the first time I saw the Alvin Ailey dancers. It was back in the ‘70s while I was still in college. The program ended – as Ailey programs often do – with the signature ballet “Revelations.” Up until that time, I had been impressed with the dancers’ dazzling technique – Ailey dancers have a way of making the most arduous moves seem graceful and effortless- but “Revelations” was something else. It was not just a dance, it was a lyrical poem, it was drama, it said things to you, and one of its most haunting dances “Sinner Man” , with a trio of male dancers charging across diagonal paths of light, criss-crossing the stage with high leaps, was filled with such fervor, such desperation and such yearning for deliverance, it brought tears to my eyes. I knew the song and although Ailey uses the traditional version of this spiritual, I could not help thinking of the Nina Simone interpretation.
Oh, sinner man, where you gonna run to all on that day?
Run to the moon, “Moon won’t you hide me?”
Run to the sea, “Sea won’t you hide me?”
Run to the sun, “Sun won’t you hide me all on that day?”
Lord says, “Sinner man, the moon’ll be a bleeding.”
Lord says, “Sinner man, the sea’ll be a sinking.”
Lord says, “Sinner man, the sun’ll be a freezin’ all on that day!”
So I run to the Lord “Please help me Lord”
Don’t you see me praying. Don’t you see me down here praying?”
But the Lord said “Go to the devil!”
The Lord said “Go to the devil
He said “Go to the devil all on that day !”
So I ran to the devil; he was waiting
I ran to the devil, he was waiting
I ran to the devil. He was waiting
All on that day!”
The song, used in revival meetings to help people confess their sins, is based on a prophecy recorded shortly after Jesus’ death and resurrection, which gives a detailed picture of his promise of judgment on earth. It is found in the last ‘book’ in the Bible and is titled “Revelation”. These verses relate to sinners seeking refuge in the rocks:
“Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of Jesus, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
“Revelations” is a classic and Ailey fans pride themselves on how often they have seen the ballet performed. Wild applause inevitably greets the dance and there is as much outpouring of love from the audience as there was of Ailey’s heart and soul in composing this piece. At last Saturday’s matinee at the BAM, I remember the audience swaying as one and clapping to the finale, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” and I remember walking out uplifted, a better “me” than had walked into the theater earlier.
There is a reason for the ritualistic love “Revelations” inspires in contrast to other pieces in the program. ” Suite Otis”, an homage to Redding, a delightful piece of fluff with colorful costumes (apart from“Satisfaction”, I’m not a Redding fan and lack the esthetic sensibility to appreciate all these shades of pink on male dancers shaking their booties) is a series of sexy playful vignettes of couples in various stages of their relationships, and the curtain raiser “Hymn”, a Jamison and Deavere Smith collaboration which combined ballet, jazz and swing is an energetic tribute to Ailey himself . The work begins with a voice-over by Ailey, discussing his artistic beginnings, from his “blood memories” of growing up in Texas and continues with footage of interviews and rehearsals with the legendary choreographer with the equally legendary Carmen de Lavallade and Judith Jamison . There were some memorable moments – “Mask” uses a female dancer and Deavere Smith’s voice recording to explain how difficult it is to show one’s vulnerabilities and live without a mask in modern American society, but it is clearly “Revelations” – emotionally multilayered , textured and powerful- that capture Ailey’s poetic style.
I remember reading a comment somewhere that he would never do anything else like it. He didn’t have to. With its exuberant music, the soaring emotional intensity of its dancers and the clarity and elegance of its choreography, “Revelations” is Ailey’s gift to us. Impervious to time and fashion, it stands alone and keeps enriching us over the years.
Michele Voltaire Marcelin